Lecture Notes: Herbie Hancock on "The Wisdom of Miles Davis"

View from famously uncomfortable seats
In case you didn't know, Herbie Hancock is this year's Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, which is a fancy designation at Harvard that allows the university to bring one distinguished artist each year to give a series of free lectures in the school's biggest lecture hall, Sanders Theater. The term "poetry" is interpreted broadly here—similar to how "sports" are interpreted broadly for Rhodes Scholar applicants—and past Norton lecturers have included Igor Stravinsky, e.e. cummings, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Leonard Bernstein (whose lectures are up on YouTube!). Homi Bhabha introduced Herbie for the first lecture, and his opening remarks were notable for two primary reasons: (1) Bhabha pointed out that Herbie was the first African-American Norton lecturer, which was received with moderate applause (kind of shocking, considering that the Norton Professorship was endowed in 1925), and (2) Bhabha quoted Miles Davis on Herbie, something along the lines of "The shit sounded good as a motherfucker," which was so well-received that he repeated the quote twice! 

The lecture took a little while to warm up: Herbie introduced himself and discussed the importance of recognizing the multidimensionality of individuals, e.g., that for Herbie, he is aware of himself as more than just a musician, but also as a spouse, an American, an activist, and so forth, and, mostly importantly, a human being. He also commented on the title of his lecture series, "The Ethics of Jazz," but interestingly focused on the "ethics" aspect of the title and what that referred to—for him, the guidelines of conduct that in both jazz and Buddhism he's found to be applicable to life—without commenting on the word "jazz" and its cultural and ideological connotations.

Some of Herbie's advice might have come across as stale bromides—that is, had they not been coming from such an experienced and established artist. He seemed content to share his stories at a relaxed, leisurely pace, moving from how Donald Byrd first introduced him to Miles, who asked him to play for him and who complimented Herbie on his touch, to a memory of how Herbie first became enthralled with music at age nine after discovering the possibilities of a beautiful touch when hearing his piano teacher play Chopin. 

Most of the stories I had never heard before: for instance, he recalled a gig with the quintet at Lennie's-On-The-Turnpike in Peabody, MA, where he felt frustrated by the sense that he was playing the same stuff over and over. Miles, who sensed Herbie's frustration, leaned over and cryptically said, "Don't play the butter notes." Butter notes? As Herbie explained, he took "butter" to refer to the "fat" or the obvious note choices, and experimented with leaving out the 3rds and 7ths in his voicings and melodies, which led to surprisingly fresh results and reinvigorated his playing. For Herbie, this was also a lesson in mentorship: reach down at the same time you're reaching up; help those less experienced than you while you continue to develop yourself. 

He shared another story about Miles when he had been hired for the quintet: he was asked to come to Miles's house to rehearse with the band, but over several days, Miles played infrequently and often went upstairs to leave the bandmembers to their own devices. After those couple rehearsals, the band was taken into the studio to record Seven Steps to Heaven. Herbie explained that years later, he learned that Miles had gone upstairs to listen to the band rehearsing through his home's intercom system, since Miles knew that the band members would be most uninhibited and loose with the absence of his presence. Herbie also told a story about racing in his new AC Cobra against Miles's new Maserati, but the specific moral of that story was lost on me.

Among other things, Herbie also shared a number of anecdotes from his own personal life, dealing with topics such as racism, corruption, and artistic commitment. He also shared a lesson from his Buddhist study, "turning poison into medicine," and to that effect recalled a specific gig in Stockholm with the quintet in 1967. The band was cooking and Miles was building his solo to a fiery climax when, in a key pause, Herbie laid down a huge chord that he immediately realized was wrong or felt like an absolute mistake in the moment. He says that in that moment, he felt crushed, but was shocked when immediately afterwards Miles responded with a phrase that incorporated that apparent mistake into the solo. Rather than judging the chord as bad, Herbie said, Miles simply took it in as an unexpected input and reacted to it accordingly. 

After the lecture, Bhabha moderated a Q&A with Herbie and even coaxed out an exquisite rendition of "Stella by Starlight." There are five more lectures to go over the next two months and I'm hoping to make all or at least most of them. If you're in the area and can make it out around noon the day of, tickets are available for free at Sanders Theater until they run out. Hope to see you there!

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Wynton Marsalis just finished up a six-lecture series at Harvard last week, which started in the spring of 2011. I thought I'd write a few words for The Crimson to reflect on what I'd learned from hearing the man speak and play, and also about what I've learned from reading about the controversial figure that Wynton is. Here's the piece.


  1. is this lecture available online anywhere? i mean, for those of us who are distance challenged?


    1. Here's the video:


      I believe the others will be made available in due time.

    2. You can find the lecture on YouTube as well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPFXC3q1tTg


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